Topical treatments for genital lichen sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus is a chronic skin disease that mostly affects adult women, but also men and children. It mainly occurs in the genital area and around the anus. Affected women and girls frequently report itching, pain, and burning in the involved area. Scarring after inflammation may cause fusion of the vaginal lips, narrowing of the vaginal opening, and burying of the clitoris. Sex is often painful, less pleasurable, or impossible because of the pain. Lichen sclerosus in men and boys may cause tightening of the foreskin, leading to difficulty in passing urine or painful erection. Pain on opening the bowels may also be present, causing constipation, especially in children. Treating this disease is beneficial as the symptoms can be relieved, and further damage to the genital area and around the anus may be prevented. Various topical treatments for lichen sclerosus have been devised. This review aimed to identify which topical treatments are effective and safe.

We included 7 trials, with a total of 249 participants, covering 6 treatments in this review. Topical clobetasol propionate and mometasone furoate were effective in treating genital lichen sclerosus. There was no substantial difference in the efficacy of relieving symptoms (e.g. itching and pain) between pimecrolimus cream and clobetasol propionate, but the former was less effective in improving gross appearance.

More research is needed for a number of reasons: to decide the strength of steroids that should be used, as well as the frequency and length of application to the skin which gives the best results; to examine other skin treatments; to assess the long-term benefits of topical treatments with regard to relieving symptoms and reducing the risk of developing genital cancers; and to examine the benefits of treatments on the quality of the sex lives of people with this condition.

Authors' conclusions: 

The current limited evidence demonstrates the efficacy of clobetasol propionate, mometasone furoate, and pimecrolimus in treating genital lichen sclerosus. Further RCTs are needed to determine the optimal potency and regimen of topical corticosteroids, examine other topical interventions, assess the duration of remission or prevention of flares, evaluate the reduction in the risk of genital squamous cell carcinoma or genital intraepithelial neoplasia, and examine the efficacy in improving the quality of the sex lives of people with this condition.

Read the full abstract...

Lichen sclerosus is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition that most commonly occurs in adult women, although it may also be seen in men and children. It primarily affects the genital area and around the anus, where it causes persistent itching and soreness. Scarring after inflammation may lead to severe damage by fusion of the vulval lips (labia); narrowing of the vaginal opening; and burying of the clitoris in women and girls, as well as tightening of the foreskin in men and boys, if treatments are not started early. Affected people have an increased risk of genital cancers.


To assess the effects of topical interventions for genital lichen sclerosus and adverse effects reported in included trials.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following databases up to 16 September 2011: the Cochrane Skin Group Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) in The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE (from 2005), EMBASE (from 2007), LILACS (from 1982), CINAHL (from 1981), British Nursing Index and Archive (from 1985), Science Citation Index Expanded (from 1945), BIOSIS Previews (from 1926), Conference Papers Index (from 1982), and Conference Proceedings Citation Index - Science (from 1990). We also searched ongoing trial registries and scanned the bibliographies of included studies, published reviews, and papers that had cited the included studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of topical interventions in genital lichen sclerosus.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently selected trials, extracted data, and assessed the risk of bias. A third author was available for resolving differences of opinion.

Main results: 

We included 7 RCTs, with a total of 249 participants, covering 6 treatments. Six of these RCTs tested the efficacy of one active intervention against placebo or another active intervention, while the other trial tested three active interventions against placebo.

When compared to placebo in one trial, clobetasol propionate 0.05% was effective in treating genital lichen sclerosus in relation to the following outcomes: 'participant-rated improvement or remission of symptoms' (risk ratio (RR) 2.85, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.45 to 5.61) and 'investigator-rated global degree of improvement' (standardised mean difference (SMD) 5.74, 95% CI 4.26 to 7.23).

When mometasone furoate 0.05% was compared to placebo in another trial, there was a significant improvement in the 'investigator-rated change in clinical grade of phimosis' (SMD -1.04, 95% CI -1.77 to -0.31).

Both trials found no significant differences in reported adverse drug reactions between the corticosteroid and placebo groups.

The data from four trials found no significant benefit for topical testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, and progesterone. When used as maintenance therapy after an initial treatment with topical clobetasol propionate in another trial, topical testosterone worsened the symptoms (P < 0.05), but the placebo did not.

One trial found no differences between pimecrolimus and clobetasol propionate in relieving symptoms through change in pruritus (itching) (SMD -0.33, 95% CI -0.99 to 0.33) and burning/pain (SMD 0.03, 95% CI -0.62 to 0.69). However, pimecrolimus was less effective than clobetasol propionate with regard to the 'investigator-rated global degree of improvement' (SMD -1.64, 95% CI -2.40 to -0.87). This trial found no significant differences in reported adverse drug reactions between the pimecrolimus and placebo groups.